Author and Artist Cher Duncombe interviews Mugisho Ndabuli about his work in DR Congo.
"In 2010, I was writing for an online journal and met a man who would broaden my scope of understanding and appreciation for those who truly serve others under the most dire circumstances. His name is Mugisho Ndabuli".
He lives in Rwanda with his wife Bahati and their three children. Mugisho Ndabuli holds a Master's Degree in Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies from the University of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.
Mugisho now teaches Conflict Resolution, Communications, and Professional Competencies at Kepler Kigali-Rwanda University. In addition, he is the Co-founder and Executive Director of COFAPRI, which stands for Congolese Females Actions for Promoting Rights and Development, an NGO which is partnered with Safe World for Women.
Through the years, Mugisho and I have become friends. His wife Bahati teaches both women and children in this organization. I have come to care deeply for this family and have the utmost respect for Mugisho. Recently, we reconnected on LinkedIn and together we decided it was time for another interview. I wanted to catch up on his astounding work in the DR Congo.
The following is our interview:
Cher: Your organization, COFAPRI, which is Congolese Females Action for Promoting Rights and Development, had its inception in 2009. Through this organization, which you head, you help women of the DR Congo who have been raped. You also help their children. In what ways do you help these women and children?
Mugisho: We help the women and the children in different ways. The women are involved in learning a life skill such as sewing; they also do small business of retailing cooking palm oil, selling fish, rice, sugar, salt, manioc flour, beans, etc. Others are involved in cultivation activities. In addition to these activities, the women are also learning basic reading and calculating. Finally, the women are also given reusable FEMpads, pants, bras and bars of soap in order to help them be hygienic.
The children are being helped to get school education. COFAPRI pays their school fees and materials. We also have some children who have personal sponsors. The total number of the children we are supporting is 96, most of them are girls. These children are in different schools, and they come from various villages.
Cher: Would you please expound on the cultural environment that endangers these women? I am interested in how families react when the husband is killed by militia in front of their family. What are the ramifications for the women and their children?
Mugisho: The cultural environment is not favorable for the women. The whole country is a strongly paternalistic community where men take it all; they make and ensure protection of the traditions that discriminate women. The situation is worse in the villages where women and girls have no right to go to school. They say a woman (girl) cannot perform as well as a man in school. Again, they say sending a girl in school is loss because she will get marries and so she will not be productive for her parents, but for the family of her husband. Also women are not allowed to eat some food, such as hen, milk, eggs, goat. The same applies for activities, there are those for boys and men, and those for girls, and women.
When a husband is killed by the militia, the other members of the family are speechless; they are held in hostage, sometimes gun on chest. If the family members have been lucky to survive, they will never know the whereabouts of the killers.
The consequences for the widow and her children are enormous and awful to describe. In most cases, and as it is described here above, the women in the DR Congo have no word in families. So, if a husband has been killed sometimes the family in law can keep the wife, or ask her to remarry the brother of the deceased husband. This happens in case they saw the behavior of the wife is good. If she has had bad behavior, this is now the opportunity to send her back to her parents with nothing as property, even if she has had children with their son. This makes the woman suffer with her children. Most of such women end up selling their bodies for survival, without thinking of the corollary of consequences this generates ( HIV/AIDS, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, being beaten and hurt, etc.)
Cher: Please explain your statement, “No empowerment with single gender in rural DR Congo.”
Mugisho: This infers that both the wife and the husband must join hands and heads to work for their family’s development. In order to reach empowerment, husband and wife, and children have to commit to team work, with no discrimination. In the DR Congo villages, most men never work as hard as their wives. Most men spend days sipping on beer in the village, but will need food to eat in the evening. If it is not ready, the wife will get some slaps. So for empowerment to be effective both genders (father-mother; son-daughter) must work tirelessly.
Cher: How important are the basics of reading and writing for women, and are they punished by their culture for these abilities?
Mugisho: These basics are very important for the women since they can help them involve well in sewing. Sewing requires to make some basic calculations and readings. The basics are also good as the women, in case they go for vote, they can know who to vote for and who to not vote for. The basics can also help them send or read a message they have got. This does not make them be punished, because the husband does not pay anything; it is COFAPRI who takes them fully in charge.
Cher: Do the women and children COFAPRI help stay in the vicinity where they learn their skills or do they return to their former communities?
Mugisho: They do not stay in the vicinity where they learn. The women and the children come from different villages and after the learning they return to their homes. The children are also in different schools; they cover long distances before reaching their schools. This is dangerous because they can be raped along the way, or the boys be kidnapped and forcibly taken to enroll with the militia. Also, when they reach home they are very tired and cannot revise their lessons in the evening. When they go to school it is the same; they cannot follow well the lessons due to fatigue. In rainy season, they are all wet, as well as their notebooks as they have no bags.
The women cover a long distance as well. This is also dangerous for them; they might be raped along the way when going or when back from the learning center.
Due to these factors, COFAPRI is seeking means to build a school where the children can be studying and the women learn their sewing skill. This at least can reduce the consequences of walking such long distances.
Cher: Please discuss the impact of the militia today as you attempt these efforts. Do they try to impede you?
Mugisho: The militia remains a negative force that cannot allow activities of empowerment go on in a positive way. The militia in the DR Congo are erupting into homes of people to plunder their property and rape the women. Three members of COFAPRI members in Katana village were raped six months ago, and we took them to Bukavu, the capital city of South Kivu, for treatment. When they came back, they joined other members. Back in 2010, COFAPRI experienced the brutality of these militia. They pillaged our pigs, rabbits and goats.
Cher: Are you also working with health issues for these women and children?
Mugisho: Yes, COFAPRI is also working with health issues, but not in the way people think of it. We are helping women and girls in rural villages to improve their hygienic conditions by using reusable Fempads when they are in their periods. In addition, they are given bars of soap to clean the pads for safety. These pads are made and distributed by It’s A Girl Thing Organization. Not only, this. COFAPRI also uses DVDs to educate the women (and the whole population) on ways of being healthy. These DVDs are supplied by Thare Machi Education. The outcomes of these educative DVDs are encouraging. Both women and children benefit of another form of education we offer them through DVDs. The DVDs teach them about basic hygiene, and ways of changing negative behaviors to constructive ones. The disks contain various themes, such as how to keep your teeth clean, when to have a baby, avoiding malaria, Ebola, becoming a woman, etc.
Cher: How dangerous is it for women to seek refuge through COFAPRI?
Mugisho: In general, the women who seek refuge via COFAPRI are safe. There are some cases where husbands beat their wives, as they heard they came to COFAPRI. They accused us of rebelling women toward their husbands. In 2011, one of our coordinator was arrested under the allegation that COFAPRI is breaking homes. For these people, a woman has to remain dependent on the husband in everything, and illiterate until she dies. Teaching her on her rights is thus called rebelling the woman.
Cher: If you could choose one example of a woman or child whom you have helped that gave you inspiration, what would that be?
Mugisho: I would choose in both cases, for sure because since we have been helping them, they have made good steps. But importantly the women involved in sewing and small business are making us happier and give us more motivation on seeing how pride they are and on hearing of their achievements since they have been sewing and doing business. They often openly say how they are now earning an income that helps them support their children at home and in school. They feel they are becoming economically empowered by being self-reliant. The way is still very long, but the steps they have made show success will be ours.
Cher: If people would like to donate to COFAPRI, please explain how they can do that, Mugisho.
Mugisho: Those who can generously choose to donate, they can go to our online fundraiser.
Cher is married and has a BS in Secondary Education, for teaching English and Speech to high school students. She has been a teacher, a social worker, an Investigator for the PA Office of Inspector General, and owned her own antique shop. She now works as an author and an artist. Her first book was published November 14, 2014 and is entitled GANDY DANCING ON THE SECOND FLOOR. It is available on Amazon.com.